Fostering Employee Engagement and Retention in Higher Ed

Strategies to keep faculty and employees engaged and reduce turnover

Keeping employees engaged while minimizing turnover is a crucial component of institutional success, but unfortunately many colleges and universities are hampered by a culture of disengagement. Recent studies have found that many faculty members and other employees feel they are not engaged with their work. How can higher ed leaders address this common challenge by actively transforming disengagement into engagement, keeping academic faculty and staff members on the job and helping them to support student and institutional success? 

In this web seminar, presenters examined some of the results of a recent survey from Cornerstone OnDemand, which asked nearly 500 higher ed leaders about how their institutions are engaging their workforce, and discussed some best practices for engaging and retaining an institution’s employees.


Tom Tonkin

Principal Consultant, Thought-Leadership and Advisory Services

Cornerstone OnDemand

Kurt Ackman

Senior Director, Higher Education

Cornerstone OnDemand

Tom Tonkin: I’d like to start by providing a background for this survey. The survey captured a lot of data. And I could discuss the results for weeks. But I want to focus on the challenge of lagging indicators versus leading indicators, to give us some perspective on language as we dive into the survey.

This concept has been revived by Chris McChesney, author of The Four Disciplines of Execution—this idea of trying to focus on the lagging indicator, meaning the goal. In this case we’re talking about employee engagement, which is, believe it or not, a lagging indicator, meaning that whatever it is that you are going to do to try to increase that employee engagement has already happened.

What’s more useful is to look at leading indicators that are more predictive and influenceable. For example, improved compensation and benefits may be something that can increase employee engagement in the future. Looking at this entire data set with that lens on, we will be able to see what we can turn into actionable items.

Our partners at Ellucian helped us put this survey together. We had 467 respondents across many different institutions. We provided 15 closed-ended questions and one open-ended question.

Kurt Ackman: I’ve had the privilege of working with colleges and universities for over 20 years. One common theme in the survey is, “I love the experience of being around the people on campus—our students. Being able to be part of their development at the institution is helping me feel engaged.”

But, there are other definitions of engagement. You might hear people say things like, “I just don’t feel motivated or challenged in my current role, so I’m not engaged.” Or, “I’m just not sure where my career is going to go from here if I stay at the institution. What can I do next?” We even saw, “I’m not even sure I’m necessarily appreciated in my role. Therefore, I don’t feel very engaged.”

The importance of measuring engagement

Tonkin: If your definition of engagement is very vague, it’s difficult to be able to apply any kind of intervention to increase engagement.

In the survey, first we asked about whether or not you measure engagement. The answers were all over the map. One very interesting response was, “We do this through regular employee net promoter scores.” For those not familiar with net promoter scores, it’s basically one question that asks, “Would you recommend my product, my institution, my offering to a friend or a family member?”

That is a very good indicator of whether people feel they are engaged. If we look at net promoter scores from a characteristics perspective, we see that it’s essentially taking a pulse. It’s something quick and simple—we recommend that.

Ackman: Higher ed has always been a bit unsure about how well we are measuring success, especially when it comes to faculty and staff. If anything, maybe there is an annual form that goes out: “Go download this PDF.” And maybe your manager or department chair will look at it, or HR will. I even remember seeing some of the respondents say their campus does a survey once every three years and it’s 50 questions long. Three years? You might be speaking to completely different faculty and staff.

So Tom, you are right on with pulse surveys. An encouraging thing I’ve seen on campus is more institutions asking their leadership if they can start providing feedback—maybe from peer to peer—and start tracking success with smaller, incremental goals so people know how they are moving along.

Tonkin: Then we asked, “What are the top three roadblocks to increasing employee engagement in your institution?” We see that the faculties didn’t have much to say about this. However, the staff said compensation and benefits. We always gravitate to this idea of money. We know it can be a quagmire. Is there merit here, Kurt? This is kind of a touchy subject.

Ackman: Many of our public institutions, or where we have union employees, have very defined positions and very defined classifications with specific salary ranges. But at the same time, we’ve seen more institutions looking at doing merit increases tied to performance. Pay for performance is increasingly common at certain institutions. More importantly, though, is realizing that compensation and benefits encompasses more than just salary. The benefits seem to be where people are starting to realize they can get a lot of bang for their buck.

Techniques and incentives to improve engagement 

Tonkin: We also asked what programs or incentives specifically would improve engagement. What I found very interesting across the board is that none of this had anything to do with giving people more money. It had a lot more to do with work/life balance. So that’s good news, right? It’s about compensating me as a whole person.

The next question was: “What technologies does the institution use to promote engagement?” What I found interesting is this idea of learning management and professional development tools.

If we’re looking at ways to ensure low staff turnover, this survey indicates that developing people increases engagement. This is consistent with data that we’ve seen in other places, but it also is consistent with data that we’ve seen outside higher education and in other industries.

Ackman: Performance enhancement in higher ed can have the reputation of a stick versus a carrot. Even with faculty, performance management can be things like student surveys, and perhaps they are being used in ways that aren’t always highlighting the good things that individuals are doing as opposed to identifying areas for improvement.

Developing people has very direct correlations to engagement. Instead of using performance metrics as a way to have a tough conversation about, “Hey, you are not doing well in this area,” they can be described as, “Hey, we noticed this was an area you can improve. Here are some ways through professional development offerings we have here on campus that can help you get to where you need to be.” That can be a very positive experience.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, visit


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